two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
By: 
A. J. Jacobs
user_rating: 
0

One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

A-KnowItAllWe all wish we were a little smarter; Jacobs chose to do something about it. Passing over university extension courses and crossword puzzles, he went straight to the Encyclopedia Britannica—all 32 volumes and 33,000 pages of it. In his quest for self-improvement, Jacobs joins Mensa, becomes a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, encounters the sneering superiority of his brother-in-law, and struggles to measure up to his father, who attempted the encyclopedia-thon only to fall off at the B’s. All the while, he and his wife try to conceive their first child. The Know-It-All is a story of high hopes from a middlebrow culture.
Simon & Schuster. 386 pages. $25. ISBN: 0743250605

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"This book is more than just a cute treatment of trivia. … Jacobs seems just as wide-eyed and enthusiastic about learning about Goethe as he does discovering that the Mensa crowd is so socially inept that at their meetings they have color-coded stickers for members to signal if they want a hug or if they prefer to be asked first." Scott C. Yates

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Jacobs incorporates stunts involving both Jeopardy and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire into his adventures. And why not? Without such diversions, the reader would merely be reading about Mr. Jacobs’s reading. … But more often he is disarmingly nimble in his ability to make connections both specious and entertaining." Janet Maslin

San Jose Mercury News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"… there is something touching and even admirable about his compulsiveness that made me forgive the many dumb jokes and the artificiality of the whole project." Charles Matthews

Newsday 2 of 5 Stars
"Cut a hundred pages and a legion of boldface names and there’s a charming if saccharine book here about Jacobs’s adoration for his father, his sheer love for his wife and his struggle to figure out what he wants of himself. But all of that is obscured by the countless dumb jokes and celebrity references." Matt Weiland

NY Times Book Review 0.5 of 5 Stars
"The animating idea of this misguided endeavor is that corralling a vast array of unrelated facts will, in and of itself, make a person more interesting. This is idiotic. … Flaubert is famous for coining the term ‘le mot juste’; le mot juste here is ’jackass.’" Joe Queenan

Critical Summary

We’re in looking glass territory here, as many reviewers spent as much time on New York Times Book Review Queenan’s hack-job as they did on Esquire editor Jacobs’s book. Reviews of reviews are always awkward, especially when they flock to the defense of a book as harmless as Jacobs’s. Maybe Know-It-All isn’t an intellectual treatise; but, then again, it isn’t meant to be. Its pop culture-obsessed author clearly is out for some fun, often at his own expense. The alphabetical structure and wisecracking prose only underscore the playfulness of The Know-It-All, even if it gets certain factoids wrong. Which begs the question: what side of the "A" volume did Queenan wake up on? One must assume the backside.